My first reaction after seeing this film was to mentally vindicate Tim Burton for the fiasco that was Batman. That was an overhyped piece of fluff with all style and no anything else. This film hit just as high on the style-o-meter, but it was a damn good film besides. It was also in black-and-white, which of course means that it made no money.
Everybody knows who Ed Wood is nowadays, even if just in passing. In his own time, Ed Wood was a struggling young director trying desperately to make a name for himself. This brilliantly conceived film charts Ed's straight-line progression from obscurity into obscurity, a character journey that would make him seem an unlikely subject for a biopic. There is an arc of sorts, in that Plan 9 From Outer Space is actually notably better than Glen or Glenda?, the two films that bookend the portion of his life recounted herein. But death comes quickly to the poor and obscure, and Ed was inarguably both by the end of his life, struggling with alcoholism and writing pornography in order to make ends meet.
As Burton's film makes clear, Ed's failure wasn't due to a lack of caring, want of effort, or any of the normal hurdles we're all told repeatedly that we can overcome if we just keep at it. Ed kept at it, but he never made it, regardless. He was, by all accounts, a very likable and charismatic man-after all, he did actually get aging film icon Bela Lugosi to appear in the transvestite flick Glen or Glenda?, in one of the most nonsensically inappropriate and incongruous roles ever written for the screen. He got a local Baptist church to put up funding for a film called Grave Robbers From Outer Space, for crying out loud. His dedication and resourcefulness were never the problem. The problem was that he was someone who sincerely thought that Grave Robbers From Outer Space was something that a film actually ought to be called. Ed Wood may have been a really great guy, but at the end of the day the sad fact of the matter was that he simply wasn't talented.
Given this fact, it's quite a humorous film, as Ed's obvious inabilities to write or direct are put on vivid display. One has only to watch Bela Lugosi (Martin Landau in his oscar-winning performance) thrash around in a foot of water with a flaccid rubber octopus as Ed instructs him to "shake its 'legs' around" to see this clearly, and it's something of an odd experience to know that you're very definitely laughing at him, not with him. The film treats its hero as exactly that, but it can't help but get giggly at his foibles. Who could? The man's most famous film was a sci-fi piece about zombie-raising aliens with an absurdly silly Michael Crichtonesque agenda about saving the universe from Man's misuse of a made-up element that no two characters could pronounce the same way. It is, undeniably, hilarious. But Ed is nevertheless also a character that's it's nearly impossible not to like, whatever his feelings about angora sweaters may have been.
Adapted from the Ed Wood biography Nightmare of Ecstasy, the film does occasionally play loosely with the facts. (More recent publications suggest that the book also played rather loosely with the facts, so it's entirely possible that the film isn't particularly accurate at all.) There's certainly no evidence that Ed ever met Orson Welles, though most of the other story events are at least inspired by reality. As all of the information in Nightmare is drawn from recollections of Wood's friends and associates, certain salient points remain a matter of dispute, such as whether or not would-be Bride of the Atom financier Loretta King was actually wealthy, and the exact circumstances of Ed's death (though this is not covered in the scope of the film) to name a few. And while it's true that he and the future Mrs. Wood did actually drive off to get married during a pouring rainstorm with the top stuck down, it wasn't to celebrate a rousing reception of Plan 9. There's a bit of a conceit involved to give the film an at least semi-happy ending, though the epilogue reminds us of what really became of the man in his later years, along with the generally brighter futures of his coterie.
Johnny Depp is, as I believe I've mentioned elsewhere, an immensely talented actor. He never feels as though he's just playing Johnny Depp, instead vanishing into the character. Martin Landau, as the aged wash-up Lugosi, earned every inch of that gold statue. Everyone in the cast did well, including a memorable Bill Murray as transsexual wannabe John "Bunny" Breckenridge, but it's really the two leads that carried this film to the heights it achieved. It's a riot in its highest moments, and also a melancholy portrait of Hollywood as a killer of dreams, an indifferent facade to all those who were ready to be special, to get what they deserved and shine for an hour, only to find that there was no room for them onstage.
Ed Wood may not be remembered in the way he would've preferred, certainly, but he is remembered, and beloved by many, which is more than most of us get. If a gloriously filmed and critically acclaimed film of one's life story isn't a fitting enough epitaph, we're probably expecting too much from the world.
-review by Matt Murray